AOA members help Olympians gain an edge

July 11, 2024
The countdown to the Olympic Games in Paris is on. Discover how AOA member optometrists have helped elite athletes prepare.
Paris Olympics Image of Torch

Long before the Olympic Games unfold on July 26, some doctors of optometry were getting their own workouts. Many of those elite Olympic athletes competing for the U.S. against the globe saw their optometrists to help them optimize their vision and, consequently, their sports performance.

Over three decades, Jeanne Derber, O.D., has provided comprehensive eye examinations and more to elite athletes who have competed at the Olympics. When the Summer Olympics begin, she and her staff will root for the athletes, especially the ones they know.

“It’s just so fun to see them compete and recognize them from our office,” Dr. Derber says. “We get to know the person as well as the athlete. Every athlete we see has been so respectful and appreciative of the eye care we provide.

“But, often times, we’re the ones who feel like we’ve been given a gift to be able to work with them,” she adds. “They’re so inspiring.”

Providing a range of eye care to athletes

Dr. Derber is a vision consultant for the U.S. Olympic & Paralympic Training Center in Colorado Springs, Colorado. For years, she has also served as a classifier for the International Paralympic Committee and the International Blind Sports Association. She classifies blind Paralympians based upon the level of their disabilities.

Doctors of optometry who provide care to athletes—whether they are weekend warriors, professional athletes, student athletes and youths in sports—might fit them with prescription contact lenses or shooting glasses; suggest nutraceuticals or counsel them on ocular health to give them a competitive edge.

Maybe an athlete is poked in the eye during a high-contact sport such as wrestling and sustains a corneal abrasion. Or they suffer a blow to the head during training or competition causing their vision to blur or a sensitivity to light—signs of a concussion. As doctors of optometry, they are best able to care for these athletes and work with their athletic trainers so they can resume training, Dr. Derber says.

But that isn’t all. They also might seek out a doctor of optometry to enhance their sports performance through their vision.

"Most people think that you either have 'it' or you don't," Graham Erickson, O.D., a professor at Pacific University College of Optometry, said in a 2016 AOA Focus article. "They don't think about vision being something you can improve."

Added Dr. Erickson, who has worked with Olympians: “Traditionally, the focus has been on the physical side of sports. And there certainly is a lot of focus on the mental side also. But I think of vision training as physical training. There's always a thought that I can be a little faster, a little stronger, a little quicker. These athletes are always looking to optimize."

Especially in an event where victory is measured in a split second or the blink of an eye.

Raising the bar

With medals on the line and eyes worldwide on them, however, Olympic athletes are testing themselves against the best in the world and carrying a torch for their home nations. They seek out doctors of optometry, such as Dr. Derber, so they can perform their best physically and mentally.

By late June, their visits to her Colorado Springs practice have tapered off to a trickle. But she’s happy to respond if called upon.

“This close to the Games, we are not seeing many athletes,” Dr. Derber says. “I'm not going to change their correction right before a major event, because I don't want to change their performance.

“I emphasize to them that they already have that edge they are seeking and that they are on their game,” she adds.

Optometrists raising awareness

Four former chairs of the AOA Sports & Performance Vision Committee and its former Sports Vision Section council—Derek Cunnigham, O.D., Frasier Horn, O.D., Keith Smithson, O.D., and Amanda Nanasy, O.D.—have banded together to raise awareness around visual performance and eye care.

Like Dr. Derber, among them they have worked with athletes at all levels including professional. Their company, Sports Vision Pros, (SVP) provides online resources but it also carries a message to groups such as the National Athletic Trainers ‘Association and the American College of Sports Medicine about the importance of eye care for athletes.

“Our goal is to bridge the worlds of sports and eye care by providing education and resources that assure athletes, coaches, parents and other medical professionals to understand the importance of eye care and ocular health for performance and safety,” Dr. Nanasy says, noting that SVP’s website and social media also provides content that optometrists can use to help drive patients to their practices.

Opening eyes

All that’s left for the athletes now is to perform at the summit of sport and at their peak. The Summer Olympics run through Aug 11. The Paralympic Games start Aug. 28.

Dr. Derber has been affiliated with the training center since 1988, working with individual athletes and teams in several sports—games as diverse as volleyball, gymnastics and synchronized swimming.

She had worked primarily at the training center until the COVID-19 pandemic shattered that routine. These days, the athletes occupy her exam lane. The location changed but not the level of care the practice provides.

“It’s been a great ride all the way along,” says Dr. Derber.

Resources to make a difference for athletes

Are you interested in helping the AOA advocate for better sports and performance vison (SPV) policies, regulations and laws? Would you like to be listed in AOA's Doctor Locator as a doctor of optometry with a special emphasis in SPV? The SPV Committee provides strong leadership and expertise for the AOA's advocacy initiatives, but the real change and services come from the coordinated efforts of our members.

Joining AOA's Sports & Performance Vision Advocacy Network will not only keep you updated on the AOA's SPV advocacy efforts and resources but also help the AOA identify opportunities for you to get involved in promoting SPV on local, state and federal levels.

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